Farm workers paying the price for cheap South African wine
Systembolaget, the Swedish government-owned alcohol monopoly, promises fair conditions – but it also uses its purchasing power to put a downward pressure on prices. At the major South African wine producer Leeuwenkuil, workers suffer as the company tries to cut costs. So far, none of the South African suppliers have been stopped due to violations against Systembolaget’s code of conduct.
SOUTH AFRICA Her shoulders are aching. Claudene van Wyk was born in a farm workers home in the Western Cape and started working in the wine fields when she was 13 years old.
Harvesting season is the worst, she says. This year will be her twentieth.
“We get orders to fill the buckets until they’re overflowing. They are heavy for us women to carry and they force us to work at a fast pace.”
She shows us her last payslip.
The little piece of paper shows that Claudene van Wyk made 684 rand, around 39 euros, during the last two weeks.
An amount that low should be illegal, as the federal minimum wage for farm work is 183 euros per month. But the owner has found a way to circumvent this.
“The women here aren’t given permanent employment, the owner replaces those of us who’ve been here a long time with temporary workers. We’re told that we have to stay home while he hires replacements. The salaries we end up with are like slave wages.”
The farm where Claudene van Wyk has worked her whole life is called Leeuwenkuil Plase and has a prominent place in the history of South African wine making.
It was founded in 1693, in the most traditional wine district Stellenbosch, and has been operated by the current owner family since 1852.
Being a farm worker is something that is passed down. Many families have worked here for generations. According to Claudene van Wyk it’s not by choice.
“I have two sons and I really don’t wish for them to become farm workers. I want them to study, to go to university. But we can’t afford to send them.”
The owners, however, are doing good. Large volumes and low overheads have made it possible to expand. Leeuwenkuil Vineyards has grown over the years and now includes some 30 farms in the area.
This family run business is one of the South African wine producers selling the largest volumes at Systembolaget, both directly through their own brands and indirectly through the sale of grapes to other export producers.
A government-owned chain of stores selling alcohol, Systembolaget has a monopoly on selling alcoholic beverages in Sweden, and its purchasing power makes it a force to be reckoned with in the South African wine trade.
Leeuwenkuil’s cash cow is called Pieter Carstens, a bag-in-box red wine priced at 22 euros that the Swedish people drank 380 000 litres of last year.
When trade sanctions were lifted following the fall of the apartheid regime, the South African wine producers decided to make their mark in the budget segment.
The country quickly gained a reputation for producing good budget wines, and today Systembolaget alone buys around 5 per cent of all the South African wine that is exported globally.
At the same time, South Africa is growing as a tourist destination. 45 000 Swedish people visit the country every year and for many of them the vineyards around Cape Town are among the main attractions. Visitors can have a first class wine and food experience in historical surroundings, and at reasonable prices.
But behind the luxury is a reality that is carefully hidden from the tourists.
The workers’ run-down living quarters are located on private property, many kilometers from the beautiful vineyards. The people who plant and harvest the grapes are not visible in the promotional material.
“We are the ones suffering in the sun every day for them to get cheap wine”, Karin Carolus, 25, scoffs.
Her dream was to study and she managed to get to high school before an unplanned pregnancy put an end to further education. Now she’s back in her family home on the farm, where conditions have rapidly deteriorated.
Minimum wage in South Africa
• South Africa introduced a national minimum wage on January 1st, 2019. It amounts to 20 rand, 1.20 euros, per hour. This adds up to 182 euros per month.
• The agricultural sector was granted an exception; to only pay 90 percent of the minimum wage during a two-year transition period, while 75 percent was accepted for household work.
• Cosatu, the largest trade union confederation in South Africa and a close ally to the ANC, has welcomed the minimum wage.
• The smaller trade union confederation Saftu is demanding a minimum wage of 758 euros per month.
Sources: Sunday Times, Saftu
For a long time, the standard agreement was that if you were born on the farm you were guaranteed employment. But the terms have changed. The wine producers increasingly use day laborers more often to keep wages down.
“I don’t have permanent employment”, Karin Carolus says. “We can’t work when it’s raining and that means I don’t get paid. They say: ‘No work, no money.’”
“Tonight the owner will go home and tell his wife how hard he’s worked, but we’re the ones who have been toiling. Our names are never mentioned”, her dad Alfred Martin adds.
The conditions are hard. But the humiliation is worse.
“The supervisor will yell: ‘Get the hell out of the way.’ He has no respect at all. I’m not some cow you can just push around”, Karin Carolus says.
“If he wants to say something to you he doesn’t say ‘Excuse me’, he says ‘Bitch’’ How can you work for someone who calls you that? Not even my husband talked to me like that!”
Many of the neighbors drinking beer outside the family’s house are eager to share stories about the supervisor. The testimonies about racism and abuse appear to be never ending, and the volume increases as the bottles are being passed around.
Alcohol addiction is rampant on the vineyards of South Africa. During slavery, wine was used as a means to keep slaves docile. During apartheid, part of the wages was paid in wine.
The practice is forbidden nowadays, but the addiction remains. Nowhere in the world are as many children born with alcohol related birth defects as in the Western Cape.
A neighbor is lying passed out on the ground. Inside, Karin Carolus’ seven-year-old daughter is playing games on a cell phone while the adults get louder and louder.
The vineyards have realized that history is a marketable commodity, and are keen to highlight their centuries old traditions. But just as old as the South African wine industry is the legacy of oppression on the wine fields.
The Dutch colonizers didn’t just import vines. Between 1658 when the first slave ship entered the port in Cape Town, and 1808 when slavery was abolished, the Dutch East Indian Company shipped over 60 000 slaves from dependencies in West Africa, Indonesia, and India.
“These people’s ancestors were slaves, that’s why they work on these farms. They are the children of slavery”, Boitumelo Rahmalele says.
He is an organizer for CSAAWU, the largest agricultural workers union in the Western Cape, and he says that the power structures from those days still live on. More so here than anywhere else.
“Stellenbosch is the most racist place in South Africa. This was the center of the slave trade and the center of apartheid.”
‘We want everyone in our supply chain to have fair conditions’ Systembolaget states on its home page.
The main tool to achieve this is Systembolaget’s code of conduct and the on-site audits that are conductd to make sure it is followed.
In 2016, the harsh working conditions at Leeuwenkuil were exposed in the documentary Bitter Grapes, which was aired by Swedish public service television. Arbetet Global has also previously reported about deviations from the code.
Since the problems were first exposed, Systembolaget has conducted 17 on-site audits and subsequent checks, way above average, at the Leeuwenkuil’s vineyards and factories.
But in South Africa, the union is saying that it was blocked from participating and that improvements are nowhere to be seen.
“Since 2016 we’ve been telling Systembolaget that the workers at Leeuwenkuil are living like slaves. Our conclusion is that Systembolaget is rewarding oppression. Despite all of our documentation, Systembolaget is increasing its sales. What does that tell us? It tells us that they picked a side, that their ethical standard is a PR stunt, Trevor Christians, the general secretary of the CSAAWU, rages.
Hanna Sutherlin, head of sustainability at Systembolaget, doesn’t want to comment on the conditions at Leeuwenkuil, nor on the result of the inspections.
“I can’t go into detail about specific producers, but like I’ve said, we are seeing better conditions after the audits and we wouldn’t keep selling products from them if that wasn’t the case”, she says.
Systembolaget can revoke an agreement if the producers are unable to live up to the standard of the code of conduct. But despite repeated claims of misconduct, no South African wine has ever been taken out of sales.
“No, we’ve never done that actually. We haven’t had to because the producers have implemented changes”, Hanna Sutherlin says.
But Systembolaget does admit that the trade unions have not been getting enough infuence.
“I believe that what really has to be strengthened is our cooperation with the unions. Although it is clearly stated in our code of conduct that unions need to be a part of the process, I know that this is not always the case out on the production sites.
The Swedish government recently instructed Systembolaget to place focus on aspects like ‘working conditions, human rights, and workers rights’ in their purchase procedures.
By consequence, Systembolaget will start demanding that trade unions must be involved in on-site audits and their follow-ups.
“South Africa is still a young democracy where the different players on the labor market haven’t yet built up the trust that is needed for constructive collaboration. Sometimes this creates a situation where employers, directly or indirectly, are not allowing unions or hindering them in their work”, Hanna Sutherlin says.
From the trade unions, the assurances are met with disbelief. Systembolaget has been promising increased participation for years, Trevor Christians at CSAAWU says.
“We are very skeptical that they are serious when they’re talking about change.”
The South African economy has one of the highest inequality rates in the world. Agricultural workers are at the bottom of the hierarchy. With the fall of apartheid they gained political rights, but the old power structures are still very much in place.
Owners and supervisors are still white, while workers are black or colored. The workers are still living in deep dependency.
The rental contracts for the workers’ quarters are tied to their employment, so if you make yourself known as a troublemaker, you risk losing not only your job but your home too.
The vineyards are often located in remote areas and if you need to see a doctor you have to rely on the goodwill of the owner.
Swedish price pressure
• In 2018, South African wine made up 10.4 percent of the total wine sales at Systembolaget. In comparison, US wines accounted for 5.8 per cent and German wines for 3.6 per cent of sales.
• Almost all the revenue stays in Sweden. In 2013, local NGO Swedwatch estimated that if a bag-in-box was sold for 14.50 euros, then 10.50 euros went to the state and Systembolaget through alcohol taxes and VAT. Only 4 euros remained for the importer, the producer and workers’ salaries.
• The Ethical Wine Trade Campaign, which includes, among others, The Swedish Food Workers’ Union and the Swedish Union of Commercial Employees, argues that Systembolaget needs to pay more for the wine it buys. But Systembolaget has been defending its system of purchasing and refers to the trade laws of the European Union.
• In November of 2017 the state amended the agreement it has with Systembolaget to make sure more focus was placed on workers conditions, human rights, and workers rights’ when purchasing. Systembolaget is still implementing the agreement.
“Apartheid is over on a national level. But here the workers live on their bosses’ land, they have to buy their bosses’ electricity, drink their bosses’ water. The owners can still use the apartheid system, CSAAWU official Boitumelo Rahmalele says.
The fact that the vineyards are on private property also gives the owners legal rights to deny the unions entry to the premises.
Farm workers are not allowed to have visitors, not even relatives, without permission. The unions are trying to circumvent this limited access by recruiting union representatives on the farms. One of them is Claudene van Wyk.
“We had work related problems but when we talked directly to the owner he didn’t listen, so we formed a union. Then he called all the members of the union to a meeting and said he wanted to get rid of all of us.”
Claudene van Wyk isn’t the only one who’s suffered a cut in her work hours, but she believes the owner is punishing her extra because of her involvement with the trade union.
Ever since the owner decided to cut off the hot water on the farm, she has been fighting to get it back.
“When we told him he said we don’t need hot water.”
Does he have hot water?
“Yes. He has it all.”
Arbetet Global has reached out to Leeuwenkuil’s owner for comments, without getting a reply. Meanwhile, Systembolaget says that the conditions on Leeuwenkuil’s farms have improved.
But the agreement with the producers states that information about the audits is not shared publicly. It is therefore difficult to try to verify the claims of improvement. Similarly, it is difficult for consumers to be sure whether their wine is ethically produced.
One of few possibilities is actually talking to the workers on the farms. Their answers reveal that they don’t share Systembolaget’s view that things are improving.
“I would like to travel abroad”, Claudene van Wyk says.
“I would like to talk directly to the Swedish people. I would like to talk directly to Systembolaget. But I can’t go to Sweden. I can’t even afford to go to town to go to the doctor.”
- The text has been updated.